How Disinformation and Conspiracy Culture Are Disenfranchising Young Voters

Voting booths are set up at the Yuengling Center.
Voting booths are set up at the Yuengling Center on the campus of University of South Florida as workers prepare to open the doors to early voters on Oct. 22 in Tampa, Florida.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

While there’s still time for a surprise, this week’s most rage-inducing click will probably be New York magazine’s roundup of 12 twentysomethings offering reasons why they probably aren’t going to vote in the 2018 midterms. As Twitter excoriated the group for their laziness and inability to use stamps, and defenders began to emerge, I was dwelling on one detail that cropped up in these youths’ explanations. Three of the 12 people interviewed expressed some kind of doubt that they were well-informed enough to vote. “I plan to vote in 2020,” said Laura, the 21-year-old whose parents didn’t tell her their party allegiances until the 2016 election, and who ended up googling “Republican versus Democrat” to find out what each group believed (a true-life Halloween horror story for teachers everywhere). “I have a goal set to know more about politics by that time.”

This self-doubt is an underheralded side effect of our burgeoning conspiracy culture. In a 2014 report called “The Menace of Unreality,” Peter Pomerantsev and Michael Weiss wrote that the intent of Putin-era Russia’s disinformation efforts, which they trace back to Lenin, is not to persuade but “to sow confusion.” These young American nonvoters don’t seem to actively believe in the kinds of conspiracy theories that brought us Pizzagate and Pittsburgh, but their knowledge of the very existence of so much disinformation apparently has them muddled enough that they now don’t trust themselves to vote.

This disenfranchisement is an insidious way that the spread of conspiracy thinking helps the right. From the president on down, conspiracy theorists use terms like fake news or liberal bias and ask readers to “judge the evidence yourself,” appropriating the language of critical thinking, masquerading as the real truth tellers, and making it even harder to tell who’s operating honestly. The uncertainty this creates for some people seems to be crippling. These young voters talk the critical thinking talk, referencing concepts like evidence, argument, and bias, all while deeming their own minds insufficient for the task of voting.

Maria, 26, said that Catholic school ruined politics for her. “Everything we learned had a skew on it,” she said. “I think that shaped me … to not want to be involved.” Reese, age 23, said, “There are things that I’m aware of where I’m certain I’m right. But for most things, although I feel strongly, it’s very probable that there’s some aspect of this that I don’t understand. Somebody provides a new avenue of thought, and it changes the way I think about something. I never felt certain enough to vote.” There’s a shade of anxiety in a reply like this, making me wonder if, to young adults who were raised in teach-to-the-test school environments, the chance to vote might feel like another exam. And with so much confusion in the air, opting out might look like the best choice.

In one young voter’s response, you can see the internalization of the widespread idea that the internet is a worse way to get “informed” about the issues of the day than the media older people consume. “My parents are of the generation where they actually watch the news, and they know about candidates via the news,” Nathan (28) said, comparing that process with the way his fellow millennials get news through social media. “Reading things through social media is snippets, and it’s not the whole details on everything, you know?” It may or may not be strictly true that “watching the news” informs people better than the internet. In 2012, a survey found that people who watched partisan television news channels like Fox had less knowledge about domestic events than people who watched no TV news at all, so it may depend on what you mean by “watch the news.” But this young voter still finds his knowledge inherently lacking, and has let that lack dictate his own choice not to vote.

This is worrying, but are these people representative of their age group? As my former colleague Osita Nwanevu tweeted, we have less anecdotal (but also less clicky) survey information on the reasons why people don’t vote, gathered by the Census Bureau. After the November 2016 election, the biggest reason cited by people ages 18–24 for staying home from the polls was “Did not like candidates or campaign issues,” followed by “Too busy, conflicting schedule.” If any of these young voters considered themselves “not informed enough on the issues to vote,” there weren’t enough of them to form a category; they may be lost in the “Other reason” category, or perhaps subsumed under “Not interested” or “Forgot to vote.”

We’ll have to wait to see whether the 2018 results of this survey register more of this kind of paralyzing epistemological uncertainty. For now, it’s a good reminder that disinformation’s project of spreading disempowerment is working, and that telling people to “just vote” isn’t enough to fix the problem.